In Central Tilba, a popular cooking show has become reality, with local chefs as hosts and teachers.

My visit to Kelly Eastwood, Manager of River Cottage Australia Cooking School, starts in exactly the same way as all those who come for a day’s cooking class: sitting on the back verandah in Central Tilba, having coffee and breathing in the beauty of the morning.

A tour of the kitchen is next. Dressed for twelve students, it blends simplicity with technology. Six beautiful cream Kitchen Aids are spaced along the handsome wooden table, and there are metal tubs of spatulas, whisks and other equipment next to a cutting board, where two sharp chef’s knives rest. Clearly, action is to follow.

Five local teachers give regular hands-on classes. Renowned international master baker and CWA judge Nelleke Gorton from Tathra guides students through pastrymaking and baking; Tilba local and cheese expert Erica Dibden presents the cheesemaking course. Matt the Butcher gives the Nose to Tail class, taking a butchered pig and breaking it down, then leading workshop participants through the possibilities of butchering. Paul West, TV host of River Cottage, gives occasional classes based on River Cottage Australia recipes.

The ‘Cook with Kelly’ day is guided by seasonality, what Kelly finds at nearby markets and the produce growing at the school. As far as possible, ‘local’ is the byword, so the garlic and cheese pull apart bread will have garlic from the River Cottage garden, cheese from Erica, a duck ragu from a local duck, and rhubarb jam (to accompany the brioche donuts) from the garden. Eggs are collected daily from resident hens and Tilba Real Milk and its dense and luscious cream make regular appearances.

Kelly literally brings a world of experience to River Cottage Australia. A ‘life-changing’ experience in her twenties was her time at the world famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland, with its hundred acre organic farm and gardens. She built on this international training by working as a chef for fourteen years on luxury super yachts across Europe, shopping in markets from Barcelona to St Tropez, a Cordon Bleu course in Sydney and a placement in Neil Perry’s Spice Temple, followed by work with well-known television food shows Master Chef and My Kitchen Rules.

As well as her own hands-on classes, as Manager, Kelly and her ‘dream team’: apprentice chef Suzie Julian-Bailey (‘Suz’), Jen Redmond, Rebecca Madden and Roger the farmhand ensure everything runs smoothly. Kelly plans and organises the lunches (a feature of each class, whatever the topic), is part of a regular local ABC Radio program on cooking, appears at regional events promoting the food of the South Coast, handles administration, publicity and whatever else needs to be done.

The classes, two each weekend, attract participants across Australia from as far away as Darwin, but more often from Canberra and Sydney, with locals occasionally attending. There is a balance of women and men – ‘men are drawn to the idea of living on a farm in a self-sufficient way, inspired by the show,’ Kelly says. ‘Participants come with different levels of knowledge – some none at all – and go away knowing a lot. As the only cooking school based on a TV show, it gives us a point of difference. Sometimes we have a mystery guest from the show, perhaps the beekeeper, or Darcy, an expert in animal husbandry. Whoever it is, they support our philosophy of understanding the foundations of food,’ Kelly says.

Together, we look out at Gulaga, the mountain that oversees this valley, and nearby, Frank, the proud father of seven baby ducklings, clucks anxiously. I tentatively ask if the duck in the ragu is from River Cottage. ‘Oh no!’, she exclaims. ‘They’re all characters on the show!’ And  Kelly, whose life before River Cottage Australia spanned the world, declares that in this job, this place, she is ‘chained to the gate’.

by Jane Sandilands